Trump flirting with triumph and disaster

None of the major players have any interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict continuing. Only Iran profits from it.

June 15, 2017 11:18

President Trump has come and gone, and many pundits have tried to interpret what happened during his visit to the Middle East.

The truth is that we have no real knowledge of what must have been consultations with the Saudis, Egyptians and other Sunni governments regarding arms and payments. There must have been discussions between the White House, the Pentagon and American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There must have been contacts between the US government and the companies that may produce the vast armaments that have been announced as being planned for Saudi Arabia.

The Trump team may even have had some contacts with the European governments. We know next to nothing about all that. We are entitled to guess, and that is what we, the so-called experts, are doing.

Mr Trump made speeches; in Riyadh, at Yad Vashem, in Bethlehem to the Palestinians, and at the Israel Museum to the Israelis. When one reads them carefully, one can see that they are cleverly put together, and all of them are proof that whoever wrote them has learned the art of talking a lot and very impressively — especially in Israel-Palestine — without actually saying anything at all.

The President attacked Iran and radical Islam, and included the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Gazan Hamas in his list of enemies.

But Iran does not act alone. It acts in concert with Russia and the Assad regime. So in fact, Mr Trump was attacking what some define as the Shiite-Russian crescent: Russia, Iran, Assad, Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas. What then could be the real purpose of announcing the supply to the Saudis of $110 billion worth of advanced weapons, with more to come later?

In a perhaps unguarded moment — Mr Trump has lots of unguarded moments, as we know — the President said: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” That $110 billion would, if spent in the US, provide many thousands of jobs in the US armament industry and its suppliers, and could possibly provide a boost to the US economy. Of course, arms are not consumer goods, but employees of armament industries would spend their money to buy goods, so there will be, Mr Trump may argue, an advantage to America. “America First.”

However: are we really talking about $110 billion worth of armaments paid by the Saudis to the US weapons industry? There appears to be considerable doubt about this.

Quite apart from the fact that Saudi Arabia requires any arms purchase abroad to be balanced by an equal amount invested at home, many, if not most, of the purchase agreements are still in the process of being negotiated, and are by no means final.

Also, whatever does emerge in the end, will take time — perhaps considerable time — to mature into actual arms deliveries, so that we might be looking at a multi-year programme whose impact on employment in the US is really unknown, and may not be very important.

The announcement of the deal is certainly a great PR success for the administration. Whether it changes anything for the American economy remains to be seen.

What will happen in the Middle East? Actually, this is a misnomer, because the region should properly be called the “Muddle East.” Is the verbal attack on Iran serious? American companies are currently conducting business with Iranian counterparts without defying the sanctions on Iran. The American relationship with Russia is, to put it mildly, complicated.

Is there perhaps a message in the Riyadh meeting that the US has returned to the Muddle East, and is now looking for a compromise with the Russia-Iran-Assad-Hezbollah-Hamas front from a position of imagined strength? It seems Mr Trump will avoid a confrontation with Russia, whether or not there have been contacts prior to the election, or even after it.

For his part, Mr Putin controls a vast country beset with extremely difficult problems — demographic decline (especially among non-Muslims), a stuttering economy, and an army that supports a dictator in a country — Syria — that has been totally destroyed and which cannot yield any economic advantage to Russia. Arguably, and from a possible Moscow perspective, Russia’s military might has to be used for something more tangible than supporting Assad’s faltering regime. A deal with Mr Trump’s America might be a possible solution. Israel may not profit from such a scenario.

As to Israel: from any Israeli perspective — right, left, or centre — it would appear that the US is serious in wanting to put an end to their conflict with the Palestinians.

Neither the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians, Chinese, Saudis, Turks or Egyptians have any interest in continuing it. Only Iran profits from it.

It cannot be solved by the two sides, because as long as they are both governed and controlled by nationalists, secular and/or religious, the maximum concessions of one side cannot possibly satisfy the minimum conditions of the other.

American pressure could make a difference, provided it does not provoke either side into desperate steps. Mr Tillerson actually hinted at such pressure on both sides.

The background to this is the total failure of past American policies regarding the conflict, stretching back four or five decades. These policies were based on the assumption that both sides want peace and that what is needed is an “honest broker” who will help achieve a suitable compromise. Yes, both sides do want peace; a peace that will assure the achievement of their aims — except, of course, that their aims are diametrically opposed to each other. Therefore no broker, honest or not, can arrange a compromise. Pressure may or may not help, brokerage most certainly does not. If the Trump administration follows the principles of past American policies, it will inevitably fail. We will have to see what any new alternatives might look like.

If that is the context, then any Israeli government will have to look carefully at the new deal between Mr Trump and the Saudis. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the Riyadh deal, if something serious comes out of it, could become a real danger for Israel.

Arms supplied to a reactionary monarchy seeking accommodation with the outside world, might fall into the wrong hands if there is a political upheaval in Saudi. The regime seems, on the face of it, secure enough. However, a group of scholars with which I am associated has reached a different conclusion — and it is not the only that has done so.

There are three major problems facing the monarchy. One is the Shiite minority, probably two to three million people (Saudi censuses do not register religion, as all citizens are supposed to be Muslims, and all Muslims are expected to be Sunni), who live in the eastern part of the country, where most of the major oil wells are located. Iranian influence there is great, especially as the Shiites suffer from discrimination and, indeed, very active persecution. Disturbances, supported by Iran, are a real danger.

The second problem lies in the fact that all power resides with the royal family and its retainers, probably some 6-7,000 males. But there is a rapidly growing middle class, especially of technically trained intelligentsia. There are elements there that demand to be partners in the ruling class, and a confrontation between them and the rulers is a real danger, which may lead to a destabilisation of the monarchy.

Finally, the struggle of the monarchy against radical Islam suffers from an internal contradiction: the official ideology is still the fundamentalist, ascetic, and extremist, Islam founded in the late 18th century by Abdul Wahab in what is now Saudi.

The current monarchy is hardly ascetic in practice, but the ideology is not just maintained as the official belief system, but is taught all over the Arab and Muslim world in the schools (“madrassahs”) paid for by the Saudis.

The step from the official “Wahabbiyeh” to contemporary radical Islam is very easy. The monarchy is fighting a radical Islam that it itself helps to propagate. One of the main results of this contradiction is a serious growth in the number of radicalised Saudis who want to do away with the reactionary regime.

Arms supplied to Saudi Arabia may end up in the hands of enemies of democracy, the West and Israel. The current Israeli government sees only the short-term advantages of an American umbrella to a Sunni alliance with which a “deal” might be made. This may not be the wisest approach.

As to “our” conflict: direct negotiations between the two sides without outside pressure cannot possibly succeed, unless there is a change among the elites — on both sides.

The Trump government may be trying a new approach. West Bank Palestinians can be pressured by the Sunni coalition, and the Israelis by the US — carefully, slowly, and avoiding a desperate stand by the two sides. The negotiators with Israel will be, in the main, right-wing, Republican, US Jews.

We may be facing a paradox: a US administration that endangers humanity by its abandonment of the Paris climate accord and by its quarrel with the liberal core of the EU; a government that is devoted to destroying achievements at home in the areas of health insurance, labour rights, and the environment; a government that is cutting essential funding for cultural enterprises and educational efforts — that government might, for all we know, show the way to an Israeli-Palestinian compromise.

Any such compromise will be bitterly opposed by both sides, because it will involve retreat from hallowed positions and a crossing of red lines.

Hamas will have to be either defeated or undergo a radical change — something that is currently utterly unimaginable.

Generally speaking: a compromise in this conflict is difficult to imagine. But human history has shown that unimaginable things happen — in fact, quite often. Such possibilities may seem distant indeed, but they should not be dismissed out of hand.


Yehuda Bauer is professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

June 15, 2017 11:18

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